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FOX 13 Investigates: Utah bank listed as owner for airplanes of Russian billionaires

Posted at 5:25 PM, Mar 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 10:45:38-05

SALT LAKE CITY — For years, the Bank of Utah has managed trusts that allow the wealthy to fly the world on private jets.

Now, some of those airplanes are showing up in a Twitter account following the travels of two Russian billionaires – Leonard Blavatnik and Leonid Mikhelson.

“[Bank of Utah] should absolutely yank those plans immediately,” said Jonathan Freedman, the honorary consul of Ukraine for Utah.

“If these individuals have not been sanctioned yet, the Bank of Utah and any other organizations here in Utah and abroad should sever ties immediately,” Freedman added.

Read - Utah's governor orders Russian-made products yanked from state liquor stores

Neither Mikhelson nor Blavatnik have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. On Thursday, Bank of Utah suggested it had already ended its relationship with Mikhelson, but that Blavatnik should not be lumped in with the oligarchs who help Russian President Vladimir Putin maintain power.

The operator of an airplane can place its ownership in a trust. Financial institutions managing the trust collect fees and are technically the aircraft’s owners.

Mikhelson’s ties to a Gulfstream owned by Bank of Utah was first reported in a 2017 New York Times article. A statement issued Thursday by Bank of Utah didn’t mention Mikhelson or Blavatnik, but referenced that old article.

The statement said the aircraft trust discussed in the article “was terminated several years ago.” An online directory says the plane is no longer in service.

Read - Utah companies scramble to help employees in Ukraine

Roger Christensen, a vice president at Bank of Utah, told FOX 13 News he could not discuss any clients specifically, but that the bank would not do business with anyone sanctioned by the U.S. government.

“We follow the regulations of not only the FAA, but we follow the regulations of the U.S. government,” Christensen said.

According to biographies found online, Mikhelson is a shareholder in a Russian gas company. Kremlin watchers say Putin has favored the company.

Blavatnik was born in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He has since become a U.S. citizen. He has operated a number of businesses in the mining, energy and entertainment sectors, and given hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, but also has been accused of ties to corruption in Russia.

Read - Ukraine flag atop Utah State Capitol manufactured locally

Christensen said dropping a client who hasn’t been found to have broken the law isn’t necessarily easy. There can be contractual obligations and banking has anti-discrimination laws that can be applied.

“Make sure before we qualify anybody as an oligarch or something of that nature,” Christensen said, “that we ourselves do our due diligence, so we're not discriminating against people that maybe should not be discriminated against.”

The @RUOligarchJets Twitter account said the Gulfstream operated by Blavatnik landed Wednesday in Liberia, Costa Rica, and flew again hours later.

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